Google's big debate on piracy, privacy and porn

campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 31 May 2012 08:00AM

The annual Google Zeitgeist conference enhances the technology giant's role in thought leadership, Alex Dunsdon reports.

Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt

Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt

Now in its seventh year, the Google Zeitgeist conference is still a hot ticket. The invite-only event is a rare chance to see leading thinkers debating the big questions. It has hosted presidents, politicians, royalty and rock stars, so I felt like Charlie Bucket with the golden ticket when I got my invite to the Big Tent.

Hosting this annual conference is a great piece of reputation management by Google. The open debating forum, the range of experts and the willingness of Google to lay itself open to scrutiny is a good move for a brand so often criticised. The only thing it didn't do well was the weather - it was sweltering inside, and there were already enough people hot under the collar about some issue or other.

The Big Tent event is a much less star-studded affair than you would expect but, nonetheless, last Wednesday's line-up was first-rate. It had all the ingredients you want from these events - controversial subjects, articulate speakers and issues that touch most of us, especially those in the creative industries. Piracy, privacy and porn were the big themes this year.

THE PORN PROBLEM

And so to the debate on porn and the internet. "Sodomised by a mechanical penis" isn't your usual conference phrase, but the description of a porn-hub clip by Amanda Platell certainly focused the mind. I guess it'll take a while to replace the standard seminar terminology of "breakout groups" and "what does success look like?" ...

The Daily Mail led a lonely charge to "save our kids from porn" with a proposal that would block porn sites through ISP filters. It was a lively debate that brought up the alarming notion of running child focus groups to find out if porn actually does any harm at all. Aside from this aberration, the talk turned to practical solutions and education.

Google's Sarah Hunter and TalkTalk's Andrew Heaney agreed that tools such as Safe Search and TalkTalk's network-level filter go some way to addressing the problem. But, ultimately, the consensus was that individual parenting and education were the key to keeping children safe from adult material and that, in a free society, the regulation of porn should be a personal choice. The Father Ted writer Graham Linehan then lightened the mood somewhat by heckling the Mail as "hypocrites" and suggested we all Google the phrase "Mail grow up".

The Guardian's seminar on storytelling through use of data was much more engaging than it sounds. Data is one of those words that can turn off audiences, but Simon Rogers' engaging visualisation of how data collection revolutionised the coverage of last year's riots and helped debunk media stereotyping was fascinating.

Large sections of the media and the public dismissed the notion that the riots had any causal links to poverty as "hoodie-hugging". Rogers revealed compelling data that mapped the journey of rioters from their homes against a London poverty map. The results clearly showed that the overwhelming majority of London rioters came from the capital's most impoverished areas. Fascinating stuff.

THE PIRACY PROBLEM

The piracy session was a breath of fresh air. The music, arts and games delegates and speakers focused more on adapting existing business models to embrace the digital world than bemoaning the loss of revenue or calling for unenforceable regulation. There was a focus on creativity and innovation. For instance, Radiohead's manager, Brian Message, revealed he is looking for a new model for his acts by crowdsourcing funding for fans to support new artists.

Linehan does not even recognise the term "pirates": "I just don't see them as pirates, I see them as fans. I love those people - if they pay for it, I love them even more." All agreed that piracy is an outmoded, unhelpful term that demonises fans, and that the laws in this area are hopelessly out of date. It's time for a new, useful and workable rights solution that protects creative and consumers. However, this is a complex minefield in which nobody is taking a leadership role. How would legislation differentiate between, say, a PDF on a cure for cancer and a comedy video? And how would a global set of rules account for cultural differences? This is an issue that will rumble on, but it was refreshing to see it debated with such vigour.

WHERE NEXT FOR GOOGLE?

The keynote speech by Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, was most notable for where Google is going next. It is currently focused on what it calls "five billion voices", the number it estimates will be connected to the internet in the next five to ten years. This is clearly a big opportunity, fuelled by India and China. Google is also looking ahead to developments post the social networking boom. In addition, Schmidt announced that the autonomous car is still in development and that it would have a dramatic effect on cutting drink-driver deaths. Ace.

Schmidt also talked about the development of the semantic web. A good semantic web service will interpret meaning from search words and other information. It's about looking for subtext and providing more accurate information. Technology has been trying to provide what we want before we know we wanted it for some time, with developments such as TiVo, for example, and even predictive text. But if Google can crack a true semantic web, it will a game-changer.

The best advice of the day for my money was from Schmidt on the topic of careers. He said that anyone who thinks you can learn a single trade by 18 and carry on down a single path is sorely mistaken. With rapid advances in technology, communication and information, we are constantly reframing what we do and learning new and better ways to deliver our products and services. Events such as Google Zeitgeist are a shot in the arm for the creative industries - they remind us that there is so much to be excited about, to learn and to develop. And if we keep on our toes, exchange ideas and learn from each other, we will be better for it.

I love the outward-looking nature of a conference that crosses industries and finds big common themes that you don't necessarily get from sector-specific events. Google has really stamped its mark on this kind of thought leadership territory and, in a really simple and appealing way, enhanced its global brand. Home time. Now, where did I park my autonomous car?

Alex Dunsdon is the development director of strategy at M&C Saatchi.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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